Since Suicide, More Resources for Transgender and Gay Students

The New York Times | by Ariel Kaminer | 09/21/12

Robert S. Goopio, second from left, the president of Rutgers’s chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, a predominantly gay fraternity, with other fraternity members. “The culture might have been different a few years ago,” Mr. Goopio said.

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — It has been two years since Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University, committed suicide after learning that his roommate had ridiculed his sexuality and invited friends to spy on him and another man through a webcam. That terrible episode brought the school national attention, none of it welcome: previously known as a large and diverse state school, Rutgers became associated with homophobia and cruelty.

But today, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and their supporters can choose from four specialized housing options, three of them new, ranging from a service to pair them with like-minded roommates to Rainbow Perspectives, a floor in a residence hall organized around common interests. They can now turn for support to the 130 staff and faculty members who have been trained as official campus liaisons, or to the graduates of a new training program for “allies,” whose inaugural session is already booked to capacity. This year’s edition of a handbook that lists campus resources for “queer issues” is 92 pages long.

And this week, Campus Pride, an organization that rates schools based on the inclusiveness of their policies, upgraded Rutgers’s main campus in New Brunswick to the maximum rating, five stars. Out of the 32 possible categories in which a school can distinguish itself, Rutgers scored in 31.

Rutgers has a long history of inclusiveness; when the Rutgers Homophile League was founded in 1969, for example, it was only the second such student group in the nation. But since Mr. Clementi’s death on Sept. 22, 2010, the university has increased its efforts, propelled by a vocal campus community, an energetic administrator and an urgent need for damage control.

Even some of the students have been startled by the strength of Rutgers’s embrace.

In 2011, shortly before the start of her first year at Rutgers, Nicole Margolies was talking with a housing supervisor when she blurted out: “I’m transgender, and I don’t know what to do about it. Where do I go?” Nick, as the student is now known, feared he might not even be allowed on campus. Instead, he said, when he got there the name on his dorm room door was up-to-date. His professors addressed him as “he.” And no one made him feel it was anything other than normal.

“Boom,” he said. “Mind blown.”

At the center of all this activity is Jenny Kurtz, the head of the Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and L.G.B.T. Communities. Speaking in mile-a-minute uptalk, she sounds like an especially caffeinated undergraduate. But with her blonde bob, oversize dark glasses and stacked heels, she looks more like a junior Hollywood agent and stands out easily on a laid-back campus of baseball hats and jeans.

Ms. Kurtz said one of the big priorities of her job was to “create allies” — people whose identities do not correspond to any of the initials in her portfolio, but who consider themselves friendly to the cause or causes and want to learn more about how to help.

That effort, which as with the center’s other projects comes out of a discretionary budget of $70,000 this year (up from $40,500 the year before Mr. Clementi died), seems to be wildly successful. In addition to those oversubscribed training programs, she said she could not even print up “ally” lapel pins fast enough; as soon as she sets out a thousand, people snatch them up and ask for more.

But beyond gay and transgender students themselves, and the concentric circle of those who actively position themselves as allies, it is not clear how far the center’s message has gotten. Ms. Kurtz said she had yet to meet anyone who was less than supportive.

But Rutgers is, after all, a university of 59,000 students across several campuses.

Stefan Koekemoer, a medieval studies major who graduated last year, said he heard numerous homophobic slurs over the years. “I almost followed these two dudes because they were snickering and pointing” at a gay friend, he said.

Mr. Koekemoer, who is heterosexual, said he himself was sometimes called an antigay slur, even during classes.

Robert S. Goopio, the president of Rutgers’s chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, a predominantly gay fraternity, said “the culture might have been different a few years ago.” Since Mr. Clementi’s death, he speculated, “a lot of people who might be homophobic probably won’t say so because of the consequences they can see can happen.”

Some of that change may also reflect events that have occurred in a remarkable span in the history of American sexuality. Two years ago, President Obama had not yet endorsedsame-sex marriage and New York State had not yet legalized it (New Jersey still has civil unions). The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had not yet been repealed, and the Army had not yet promoted an openly lesbian general.

And Dharun Ravi, the student who spied on Mr. Clementi, had not been convicted of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, though his 30-day jail sentence was criticized by some gay-rights advocates as too lenient.

In just that short span, being a gay college student may have come to mean something slightly, but crucially, different than it did when Mr. Clementi arrived on campus.

“I’m from South Jersey, and it’s a rather homophobic area,” said Andrew Massaro, a junior and a Delta Lambda Phi brother. “But when I got here I realized word is spreading, and it’s spreading fast.”

The result is a university where, some students say, the presence of highly visible gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students has become just a basic and unexceptional part of campus life.

Rainbow Perspectives includes not just students who, because of their sexual or gender identity, felt out of place in a traditional dorm. It also includes heterosexual students who like the company.

So Jeff Thomas, a junior, lives there with his girlfriend — which would be against the rules in a traditional dormitory, where students can room only with those of the same legal gender. And Nick Margolies, now a sophomore, lives there with a male roommate — which also would be against the rules for the same reason. Delta Lambda Phi now has both its first transgender member and its first straight member.

Leonard Haas, a fellow fraternity member, said he once heard a homophobic taunt at Rutgers as he walked down the street holding another man’s hand. But because Mr. Haas felt so comfortable as a gay man at Rutgers, and because that stray comment was so much at odds with the warm reception he had otherwise received, he shrugged it off.

“I’m happy,” he said, “I’m in a good place, it doesn’t matter.”

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